Scholarship vs. Dream School: How I Made My Decision

By: Aditi Adhikari
Me and my friends waiting to get into a football game (free for students!)

When I visited a prestigious school my junior year, I immediately fell in love with everything the place had to offer, from crazy basketball traditions to a fully funded summer abroad for every student. The campus is beautiful, the neuroscience major (my chosen area of study) is well developed and funded, and the school’s reputation placed it easily in US News and World report’s top 10 American universities. It quickly became my top choice, and my head was filled with fantasies of telling people that I was a student at Dream School.

Welcome to Chapel Hill!
So naturally, when the acceptance letter came, I was ecstatic!! What I hadn’t expected was an offer from University of North Carolina’s Morehead Cain Scholarship, one of the oldest and most prestigious scholarship programs in the nation. It included tuition, room and board, books, a laptop, semester stipends, funding for summer internships, and even a Discovery Fund for each student that provides funding for travel and research during their time as a scholar, all wrapped up in a shiny, glittering package that was just too hard to resist.

I want to share with you how I made my decision to attend UNC by presenting some important things to think about when making your decision. Not everyone places the same amount of importance on each factor in the decision making process, so to even out my perspective, here’s an article about someone who made the opposite decision.

Where are there more opportunities?
To me, the clear answer here was through the Morehead Cain. Although Dream School is a prestigious and well-funded school with plenty of opportunities, UNC is much larger therefore has at least a comparable number of opportunities available for students. The opportunities I’m talking about here are not academic (I’ll get to that), but experiential: the two schools have similar opportunities in research, study abroad, clubs/organizations, and the like. Then, when you add the benefits of the Morehead Cain on top of that – getting everything paid for, opportunities to save up for graduate school, and a successful network of alumni – the answer to this question seemed very clear to me. The Morehead is more than just a full ride scholarship. It’s a leadership program, and so the benefits reaped by scholars amount to much more than financial assistance alone. Additionally, I felt that after graduation, the Scholarship network would be more valuable to me in finding jobs and internships than Dream School's more widespread school-wide network, no matter how prestigious that network might be.

Is your major available?
This question was much more difficult for me. Dream School has a very well-thought-out Neuroscience Department that consistently puts itself at the vanguard of scientific research, while UNC does not even offer a neuroscience major. It does have a minor, which was only introduced a year or two ago. A neuroscience major is in the works, but not slated to come out before I graduate. To see if I could still pursue my interests it UNC, I did some research online. Now, I am an Interdisciplinary Studies major, which means I am making my own major by combining classes from the well-regarded Biology, Psychology, Chemistry, and Philosophy departments. I joined the neuroscience club, and also found a research position at the Neurosciences Research Building at the medical school. Plus, UNC is ranked the #1 school for pre-med students by College Magazine, and it's school of Public Health is second only to Hopkins. Thus, even though the lack of a neuroscience major was almost a dealbreaker for me, I was still able to find a huge number of other outlets to pursue my interests. So, dig deeper before making your decision based on one single factor.
Trying fried Oreos at the NC State Fair!

Where will you be happy?
This one is SO important. I can’t tell you the number of classmates I know personally who are unhappy with their decision to attend a school because their parent/counselor/teacher/society told them to. Ultimately, YOU'RE the one living there alone for four whole years. I had never visited UNC before I applied, but when I did, though it wasn’t love at first sight, I saw that students there were always happy to be there. I saw that I could easily fit in with the campus culture, and it filled my heart with joy to feel the bubbly and sunshine-y vibe on campus. Mental health is of utmost importance when you’re trying to grow and contribute to the world, so don’t ever compromise it. If you didn’t get a chance to visit schools before, visit the ones you were accepted into before making your decision to see if the campus culture will allow you to thrive.

Don’t underestimate academic rigor
College is not easy, no matter where you go. Classes are only a small part of your college experience; research, extracurricular activities, graduate classes, and summer courses can all add to your intellectual capabilities at every single college in this nation. There are blow-off classes at Harvard, and, conversely, classes can be exceedingly difficult at supposedly less-prestigious colleges. If you don't feel challenged, any school will give you the opportunity to take graduate-level courses. It’s much more important to surround yourself with rich academic opportunities (which are available at any research institution or liberal arts college) and people who care about learning than to place high importance on what the US News and World Report says.

What experience do you want?
This was a slightly smaller consideration, but it did play a role. I went to a private high school, and I realized that attending Dream School might as well be High School 2.0 for me. That’s not what I wanted at all. Life experience and perspective is important in building various skills. So, I thought it would be a good idea to immerse myself in a large public school, seeing as I’ve gone to small, close-knit, private schools my whole life.

Never underestimate the value of graduating debt-free
Though I received a little bit of aid from Dream School, it was not nearly enough to allow my parents to comfortably afford my education. In 2016, the average student debt per borrower at a private school was $31,000, with about 11% of students nationally defaulting on their debt. By accepting the scholarship, I was not only setting myself up to graduate debt free, but also take a burden off my parents, and even start saving and investing money left over from stipends. This was especially important to me because I am strongly considering attending medical or graduate school, which will likely set me back tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars (the average debt per graduate student is almost $60,000).

My roommate and I
waiting for an outdoor
A Capella concert to begin


I ultimately chose the Morehead over a prestigious school, and I’m not the only one. Others in the Morehead cohort made similar decisions, choosing UNC over Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, Duke, and Princeton, just to name a few. However, it must be said that many others who would have been in my cohort did choose their Dream Schools over UNC. It was a difficult decision for me, but in the end, I’m happy and wouldn’t trade the community I have found here for the world. I hope this post helps you feel that confident in your decision, too.



The Joyce Ivy Foundation just started a partnership with the Morehead Cain. Learn more here.






Other scholarships similar to the Morehead Cain:

An Autumn walk in the Arboretum behind my dorm

The posts published on the blog are written by a talented group of Joyce Ivy Fellows, who are all members of the Publications Team. To see who the members are, please visit here.

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